The saga of Stokes Croft highlights Bristol’s battle with gentrification

Stokes Croft, May 2016. Image: Getty.

Nowhere is the sharp injustice of gentrification so grossly demonstrated as in Stokes Croft. With its world renowned street art and buzzing local scene, this area is the main fount of culture and creativity, which has propelled the city of Bristol to international fame. For many years, Stokes Croft has been a seat of resilience and rebellion against the inevitable creep of corporate interests into “up-and-coming” areas.

This is a place where locals staged a peaceful sit-in against the opening of a chain supermarket – a protest which escalated into riots when local squatters were evicted by police a few days later. One of Banksy’s first murals – The Mild, Mild West – still remains, a beloved memorial to the ravers who resisted police in the 1990s.

Stokes Croft: creative frontier. Image: KylaBorg/Flickr, CC BY.

But like so many creative hubs before it, Stokes Croft is becoming a victim of its own trendiness. Now, one of the area’s most central hot spots – Hamilton House – is at risk of being redeveloped. In our research on developments in Stokes Croft, we traced the tragic arc of dereliction, rejuvenation and gentrification up to the current moment.

The story so far

It’s hard to imagine Stokes Croft without the hustle and bustle that surrounds Hamilton House. The building has thousands of visitors every day. It is home to The Canteen, a bar, restaurant and music venue which also trains disadvantaged people in the hospitality sector.

The Canteen at Hamilton House. Image: heatheronhertravels/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

It also hosts the Bristol Bike Project, providing bikes and services to underprivileged groups; the Misfits Theatre Company, a theatre and social group led by people with learning disabilities; and many other groups and projects providing everything from co-working spaces to event management.

The success story started in 2008 when the owners of the building, Connolly & Callaghan (C&C), invited a group of local people to come up with a plan for the community to make use of a derelict building in the centre of the high street. At the time, Stokes Croft was notably downtrodden; a place replete with pawnshops and massage parlours. Many people avoided walking through it at night.

Less than salubrious. Image: чãvìnkωhỉtз/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

These people went on to form the community interest company Coexist. Their idea was simple: create the “operating system”, a community interest company, which rents out office spaces to artists, projects and various organisations under market rates. At the same time, necessary renovations and marketing were done by the free work of Coexist volunteers, keen to turn their neighbourhood into a more attractive place.

Since then, Hamilton House has been central to the rejuvenation of Stokes Croft as a cultural and creative quarter, attracting many artists, creatives, charities and entrepreneurs to the building. Coexist has become a key actor in the quarter, alongside the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and other community groups. It even gained a moment of international fame when it introduced a period policy for female staff.

A valuable asset

Coexist reckons that Hamilton House brings in an annual revenue of around £21m, and is responsible for around 1,260 jobs in the local area. It also provides free spaces, events and exhibitions worth around £100,000 annually to the community.

Coexist’s Community Kitchen at Hamilton House. Image: Ruth Davey/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

By raising the profile of Stokes Croft, Hamilton House has also contributed to rising real estate values in the surrounding area. And now, the owners of Hamilton House are seemingly tempted to cash in. In November 2016, C&C notified the council of their intent to dispose of the building, so that the community asset lock on the property would be removed.

While Coexist has, up until now, always said that C&C have been “sponsors, instigators and landlords” providing essential support for the Hamilton House project, C&C have also benefited greatly from the hard work of the local community. The financial statements for C&C reveal that when Hamilton House was valuated in September 2016, the value of the property had increased by a whopping £3.44m, from £2.1m in 2008 to £5.5m today.

Existing legislation gave Coexist the right to a first bid, but the community interest company has been unable to compete with market rates. Their pretty impressive £5.5m, face-value bid was rejected by C&C in July 2017. Bids ranging from £5.2m to £7.5m have reportedly been made by other parties.

A clouded future

Although conversations continue, fears about Hamilton House’s future run high. C&C have served Coexist with a notice to vacate the building by 11 August. An offer of a six-month recurring lease (with some caveats regarding the middle and back part of the building, which C&C want to develop) is on the table, but it means that Coexist and most of the tenants now lack the security to plan ahead.

A spokesperson for C&C said:

Connolly & Callaghan has supported and assisted Coexist for nearly a decade in its work in creating community. Coexist was brought into being in 2008 because Connolly & Callaghan wanted to create an experimental centre of excellence in sustainable community at Hamilton House, which we have owned since 2004 … Going forward, our intention is to maintain a flexible approach towards the future of Hamilton House. We hope to see Coexist continue its work in community building, and to also see Coexist build its own long-term social, environmental and financial stability.

Paradise lost? Image: jontangerine/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Coexist and their tenants have made Stokes Croft into a more attractive area with their cultural labour. Here, local values, practices and people have worked to achieve social goods for the whole community, as well as those who visit. Now, the people who lifted up their local communities could be deprived of the fruits of their labour.

Of course, this resilient community is already exploring possible solutions. Coexist and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft are proposing to use Bristol’s community land trust, to take over the building. This would allow the property to be owned communally, protecting this important infrastructure from market interventions.


The ConversationBut for these solutions to work, regulation must be put in place, to limit the power of real estate owners and to acknowledge those who regenerated the area. Gentrification is often understood as inevitable, but it can also be deeply unjust. It’s time for councils and governments of all colours to recognise the twisted logic of gentrification – which leaves strong and resilient communities at the mercy of private developers – and put an end to it. It’s only fair.

Fabian Frenzel is associate professor in organisation studies at University of LeicesterArmin Beverungen is junior director at the Digital Cultures Research Lab, Leuphana University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.